The defense attorney for a former soldier whose manslaughter conviction was upheld on appeal Sunday ridiculed IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in a television interview on Monday morning, calling the general fat, unhealthy and thus incapable of inspiring soldiers.
“The chief of staff does not, in any way, shape or form, have the appearance of a soldier. He is similar, in his appearance, to a file clerk in the Kirya (IDF headquarters),” attorney Yoram Sheftel said during an interview on a Channel 10 morning show.
This was after Sheftel was asked to clarify similar remarks made during his own radio show last week.
On Sunday, Sheftel lost an appeal for Elor Azaria, who was found guilty of manslaughter earlier this year for killing a disarmed, incapacitated Palestinian assailant. The court threw out most of Sheftel’s arguments and upheld the conviction; however, the judges also rejected an appeal by the prosecution that called for a longer sentence, keeping Azaria’s punishment at 18 months in prison.
After Sheftel made his initial comment about Eisenkot’s appearance, the co-host on the show, and the station’s military correspondent, Or Heller, tried to clarify: “Because you think he’s fat?”
Sheftel fumbled for a moment, appearing to be deciding whether or not to proceed with this topic. He opted to continue.
“A person who is fat, like the chief of staff, does not display soldiery, and he is not an example for the entire army, in the way a chief of staff is supposed to be,” Sheftel said.
“The chief of staff could never pass an army fitness test. I am at least 10 years older than the chief of staff. I run seven kilometers in 40 minutes five times a week. I want to see the chief of staff do the same,” he added.
Eisenkot began his well-rounded career as an infantryman in the army’s Golani Brigade in 1978, serving as both an enlisted man and an officer for over a decade, including during the 1989 First Lebanon War, before moving on to other units. He returned to the brigade as its commander in 1997, leading the unit in missions throughout southern Lebanon.
He became a general in 1999 and played a pivotal role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War as the head of IDF Operations. In 2015, he replaced Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz as IDF chief of staff.
Sheftel said he didn’t doubt Eisenkot’s contribution to Israel’s security, but that the shorter, portlier Eisenkot did not exemplify what it means to be a soldier in the same way as did the taller Gantz or trimmer Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, who preceded Gantz.
Sheftel’s personal attack on the chief of staff comes a day after Eisenkot said he would seriously consider easing Azaria’s sentence, were the soldier to submit a request for leniency.
In his statement, Eisenkot said the court made its decision “loud and clear” and had reached its verdict after a “moral, professional and impartial [legal] process.”
However, he said “if Sgt. (res.) Azaria decides to file a request for a reduced sentence, it will be seriously considered, along with a review of the other considerations related to this case and from my commitment to the values of the IDF, its soldiers and its service members.”
Since a pardon request can only be made once Azaria is in prison, his attorneys would have to forego an appeal in order to seek clemency. The defense team indicated Sunday they will proceed with an appeal to the Supreme Court. (As a soldier, Azaria is not legally entitled to a Supreme Court appeal; he can only request one.)
In the television interview, Sheftel acknowledged Eisenkot’s statement, but said he did not sufficiently trust the IDF spokesperson to believe that the offer of serious consideration was real.
Sheftel repeated a request he made on Sunday, following the appellate court’s ruling, for a concrete offer of clemency before he would consider forgoing a request for an appeal.
The defense attorney, known for his flamboyance and theatricality, has gotten into trouble for personal attacks before. In 2012, on his radio show, Sheftel referred to a caller as an “impudent man, a verbal bully, a pathological cheater, an extreme leftist fanatic, an insolent [person].”
The man sued, and Sheftel was forced to pay over NIS 100,000 in damages and legal fees.
Following its ruling on Sunday, the military appellate court gave Azaria a 10-day postponement on his entry into prison, allowing the defense time to file a request for another appeal with the Supreme Court.
If such an appeal is not lodged by August 9, Azaria will be required to begin his prison sentence. Despite being released from the army earlier this month, Azaria will serve his sentence in a military prison.
Were Azaria to enter prison, he would only have to serve half his sentence, or nine months, before being eligible for parole, though there is no guarantee that he would receive it. This is different from civilian criminal law, where a prisoner has to complete two-thirds of his or her sentence before getting a chance at early release.
As a soldier, such a pardon could only come from Eisenkot or President Reuven Rivlin. However, it is unlikely that Rivlin would grant such a pardon against the wishes of the IDF chief.
The pardoning process for presidents is an arduous one compared to that of the chief of staff, and would require recommendations from the IDF’s chief prosecutor, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, the chief of staff, and the defense minister.
Immediately following the court’s announcement, politicians and public figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, called for Azaria to be pardoned.
The divisive case had revealed deep rifts in Israeli society, with some seeing Azaria as a hero and others as a criminal.
Throughout the trial, Azaria legal team defended his actions, claiming he shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in a snap decision, believing the attacker, who Azaria said was slightly moving, may have been wearing a hidden explosives vest or could have lunged for his knife. Prosecutors claimed there was no obvious danger from the critically injured attacker, who had been shot by another soldier and whose knife was more than 80 centimeters (2.5 feet) away, and that Azaria shot Sharif in the head to avenge his comrades, one of whom was injured in the attack.
Two of the five judges on the court’s panel made up a minority opinion that called for a harsher sentencing for Azaria, saying he should have received between 30 and 60 months in prison, instead of the 18-48 range that the majority had agreed upon.
The minority opinion also appeared to oppose the prospect of a pardon, noting the importance of an independent law enforcement body that should not be immediately superseded by politicians.
Speaking outside the courtroom at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, chief prosecutor Lt. Col. Nadav Weissman pointed out that eight judges on two courts all found Azaria guilty.
He praised the military appeals court for making clear the importance of ethics in Sunday’s ruling, “especially the purity of arms,” an Israeli military term for the use of weapons only when necessary.
After chief judge Maj. Gen. Doron Feiles concluded reading aloud the 158-page decision on Sunday, Azaria’s mother Oshrat yelled repeatedly that “the terrorists are laughing in our faces.” Evidently not feeling well, she received assistance in exiting the courtroom from a friend. Her husband Charlie also told the prosecutors that they were “castrating the army.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.